Rewriting history: how to blend historical fact with fantasy by S.J.A. Turney

picI’m delighted to be one of the stops on S.J.A. Turney’s blog tour for his latest ‘Tales of the Empire’ novel, InsurgencyRoman history has always intrigued me, and I’m looking forward to reading this fantasy twist. Here we have Simon’s blog post about the mingling of history and fantasy that he uses in his work:





Rewriting history: how to blend historical fact with fantasy by S.J.A. Turney

History is history, yes? Of course it is. We know all about Harold and the arrow (ow, my eye… my beautiful eye), about Henry VIII’s wives (divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived – and all off the top of my head) and about how Paul Revere rode with his warning about the British (“They’re coming and hell’s coming with them” – me misquoting and paraphrasing either the bible or Clint Eastwood there.) And fantasy is clearly fantasy, yes? Dragons called Ghaxiklyxxx and wizards with hook noses and glowing staves with a knob on the end, and magic swords that dance and hoot and barbarian heroes who really just want to be loved, right?

But what if fantasy isn’t so different to history? Because history is made of two things. There are two sources we use to gain historical knowledge. 1. Archaeology (“Look mum, I dug up a piece of a pot”) – the things that have been left in the ground from which we can draw conclusions and 2. Primary sources (“Carthago Delenda Est” – look it up, because it’s a fab quote) – things written by people at the time that have survived. What happens, then, when the history itself is fantastic? Archaeologically, what about the Nasca lines? How were they drawn from the ground? Was it a divine Etch-a-sketch? And ancient alien Spirograph? Literarily, what do we make of the emperor Maximinus Thrax? The Historia Augusta makes him ‘eight foot, six inches in height’. It’s the BTG (Big Thracian Giant) Do we believe this? Or is it fantasy?

And then let’s talk about fantasy instead of history. What constitutes fantasy? Monsters? Magic? Wizards and Elves? I remember watching a friend in my old Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign trigger a fireball trap on a stair gate. I loved my D&D. Or is it purely the fact that it is not real? Because that is the very nature of fantasy: not real. Of course by such token Pirates of the Caribbean is fantasy, as is Star Wars, and even Die Hard. So we need perhaps to quantify. Fantasy is a tale that is not real, and is based in a world that is entirely (or at least mostly) fictional. And perhaps, just to seal the deal, we might add ‘and set in the past’, although Star Wars once again makes a mockery of that. So, Fantasy is clearly not straightforward either.

History is replete with the unexplained. As well as the Maximinus and Nasca things I mentioned above, we might consider the Roman dodecahedrons? The Antikythera mechanism? Pegasus? The story of Beowulf? The fate of the Marie Celeste? And Fantasy does not have to have dragons, elves and some dude with a magic bastard sword and a name like Erigos The Earless to be fantasy. It merely has to not be quite the real world.

This is where historical fantasy is born: in the blending of these two things. In the grey areas. Or maybe the grey/green if there are zombies too…

History is clearly strange enough. If you want to write history but make it solidly rooted in a historical era you merely have to take the flavour. Use the naming conventions – that’s a good start. I have Quintillian and Titus Tythianus and similar. They are so clearly Latin based that the reader immediately connotates this fantasy world with Rome. And when I use Samir and Ghassan? Well yes: Arabic, clearly. Take architecture and twist it your way. A triumphal arch is such a Roman thing, but have it carved by a blind monk called Boldas on an island only the dead can reach? Well that’s fantasy. Or is it Roman? Can it not be both?

If you want to use the real world history and write historical fiction, there’s plenty of source material out there for you. If you wish to write sword and sorcery fantasy, your imagination is all you need. If you seek a little of both – a fictional world of the unknown and the fantastic, but rooted in something familiar and rich – then here’s my suggestions:

  1. Pick your era. Not as easy as it sounds. If you want to do this well you need to have more than a passing knowledge of that era. And you need to be prepared to read books and research to flesh out your world with realism. Try to pick something where a little mystery and uncertainty already lies. That’ll help.
  2. If you’re not using the real world, you’ll need to build it. If you were a geeky, anorakky role-player like me in your formative years this should be a piece of cake. But you’ll need to create a map of your world and develop the states and nations and the peoples within it. Of course, because you are blending history with fantasy, you need only twist what exists. My Empire is almost the Roman world of the later empire. My Pelasia is geographically North Africa and culturally a mix between that and Persia. My Horse clans are a blend of Hun and Mongol. And they are all geographically placed in roughly the appropriate position on my map. Add your dragons if that floats your boat. Have your characters journey past the tomb of Borlox The Orc ranger, where Ghaxiklyxxx burned him to a cinder. Hey, it’s YOUR story. Who’s to say it didn’t happen?
  3. Now you know what era you’re using and you’ve planned your world, study that era and prepare to rip every aspect you can from one to the other. If it’s Roman, study the armour and recreate it. If it’s Crusade era, check out the military/religious orders, monasteries, illuminated script etc. You see where I’m going with this? You can add immense flavour of an era with just tiny details.
  4. Now you’re ready to come up with your plot. Can’t help you there, I’m afraid. You’ll have to go find your own muse for that. It could be your grandma’s garden gnome. Go pick it up and peer in its glassy eyes. Try fishing from its seat. You never know.


So really, that’s it. A blend of history and fantasy is simple, so long as you’re happy to put in the study or you know your stuff well already. Don’t forget that even what you consider to be high fantasy has its roots somewhere. David Eddings’ Sparhawk books are based on the history of the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutons. Tolkien tore apart Anglo-Saxon myth and put it back together again in a new form to build Middle Earth. Guy Gavriel Kay… well, he’s the master. Just go read his books and you’ll pick up something with every page, including how wonderful his writing is! Or you could read my Tales of the Empire series – because they’re cool. There are no monsters really, no magic, no gods and no wizards. But there’s action aplenty, and they’re fantasy nonetheless.

Profile Photo 1Simon Turney lives in rural North Yorkshire with his family. A lover of Roman history, he decided to combine writing and history with a new look at Caesar’s diaries, spawning the hugely popular Marius’ Mules and Tales of the Empire series. When he’s not writing, he spends time visiting classical architecture and ruins. Insurgency is his 18th novel, and is published by Canelo, priced at £3.99 as an ebook.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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